When Silence Is A Good Thing: Giving Praise In Japan

Japan has always conducted itself by its own set of rules that may seem peculiar — shocking even — to the rest of the world. From slurping your noodles to avoiding eating while walking to designated workers called oshiya which literally means ‘pusher’ shoving you inside packed subway cars, Japan has confounded a many foreigners with their distinct customs and etiquette who doesn’t know any better.

It comes as little surprise then that these unique set of rules extend over to the workplace. Some are more peculiar than other while there are a few that just seem contradictory, at least when compared to their western counterparts. One such rule that is strictly practiced in the workplace is to “Never give praise” and ‘feedback’ in not a real thing in the workplace.


The Hierarchy In The Workplace

“You shut up!” the man at the head of the table yelled. Everyone stopped and stared at Keiko Sakurai, who immediately realized what she had done wrong.

This was years ago, when Sakurai was a junior accountant at a large firm in Japan. The man was her client, an executive from a power company who was in his 40s. And by traditional Japanese protocols — respecting your elders, showing deference to the more senior worker — she knew he could justify raising his voice at her.

The man had been criticising Sakurai’s accounting methods over drinks after work, at a table of their colleagues. Sakurai defended herself, explaining that her practices were sound. The man kept complaining. So Sakurai noted that her methods followed the contract.

“That’s when he shouted at me,” Sakurai recalled. “I broke the rules of hierarchy, and I contradicted my elder.

“Even though I was right, I still did not have the position to contradict him.” – Keiko Sakurai


Giving Praise Is Considered A Bad Thing

“If your manager asks for an update on your project, that means you’re not doing well.”

Traditionally, the Japanese language had no word for feedback because it just wasn’t something that anybody did, says Sharon Schweitzer, CEO of Protocol and Etiquette Worldwide, and an expert on how managers can assimilate in foreign countries. So they had to make up a word, fīdobakku.

Yet, it’s still simply not something that’s done. “If you don’t hear from your Japanese manager, you’re doing well,” Schweitzer says. “If your manager asks for an update on your project, that means you’re not doing well.”

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Typical Japanese workplace setting

Managers are constantly being updated throughout the day regarding work progress or completion to lunch breaks and bathroom breaks. The manager is kept in the loop about everything.

For foreign managers, the typical response would be to applaud your employee for a job well done but Schweitzer cautions. “If you reply and tell them good job, you will lose face and they will lose face. Just say thank you or don’t reply at all.”

Another concept that foreign managers put into practice is employee performance reviews. One-on-one sit-downs with the boss to discuss performance are just not done, says Taro Fukuyama, a native of Japan and CEO of AnyPerk, a start-up offering services to improve employee happiness at work.

After-work drinks with the boss

Instead, Fukuyama says, the best way to offer an employee feedback is simple: take them out drinking. This is a common Japanese tradition called nomikai, where colleagues and their bosses drink, often a lot, and often until late night but even then, any kind of feedback to be given by the manager would be about what went wrong and how to fix it.

Fukuyama says, employees in Japan typically don’t move between companies. Since they’re spending their careers in one place, the goal is to get promoted. And the best chance at promotion comes from keeping your head down and avoiding errors.

“The best way to not make mistakes is to not take risks, and so most employees will just do what their boss says and that’s it,” Fukuyama says. “You might question if this is the right way, but having a unified rule will help someone adjust to the culture.”


Learning The Hard Way

Jim Whittle, general manager overseeing Japan for McVities Digestive Biscuits experienced first-hand the pitfalls of conducting business in Japan.bartday-hh-005-336x280

An employee came up to him with a novel idea. She suggested handing out samples in subway stations, exposing the product to thousands of potential customers.

The company saw a spike in sales afterward, so Whittle decided to recognize his employee for her brilliant idea. In front of her team, Whittle noted that she had developed a successful, unique idea that went beyond the norm, which usually involved spending advertising money on simply more coupons and billboards.

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It didn’t go well. Even though the promotion worked, and even though the employee deserved the positive attention, singling her out made her seem like a maverick who can’t be trusted by her co-workers. Instead of elevating her, Whittle learned he had just made her less trusted.

Jim Whittle — RSR Partners, Tokyo branch
“It’s all about building trust, and it’s all about building relationships.”

“There are rules you need to learn to be effective in Japan, and if you don’t learn them, you will simply not get the respect of your team,” Whittle says. Now, Whittle works in the Tokyo office of RSR Partners, an executive search firm. He often works with foreign managers, prepping them for working in Japan. “Unlike elsewhere, you can’t just come in and expect to be accepted based on your past successes,” Whittle says. “It’s all about building trust, and it’s all about building relationships.”


Learning From Past Mistakes

Sakurai now a senior consultant for Aperian Global, travelling back and forth between San Francisco and Tokyo. She helps executives get ready for life in Japan, and she also teaches Japanese managers the customs of business from other countries.

During her training sessions in Japan, Sakurai will ask managers to complete a homework assignment: write down 10 comments of positive feedback about a subordinate.

“People really struggle with that one,” Sakurai says. “Maybe they come back with five or six. And then most of them are something like ‘not bad’ or ‘good enough.’ They just can’t get in the mindset of positive feedback.”

Japanese job fair

That said, younger workers, especially in Japan, may appreciate a kind word from the boss when things go right, Sakurai says. And, very slowly, things are beginning to change in Japan, with a few companies adopting collaborative and communicative management styles.

“If you go around and keep telling your employees ‘terrific job,’ they’re going to wonder what’s wrong. Because, they’ll think, what’s terrific about doing your job? That’s what you’re supposed to do,” Sakurai says.

Instead, it’s about picking up on nonverbal clues from employees on whether your positive feedback is well accepted, Sakurai says.

And so, just like anywhere, an occasional “good job” might just be the motivation your employees need.


This feature’s source came from BBC.





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